Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Vote Yes!" (Act II; 'Mulgrew's Minions')

Act I; 'Rage'
Act II; 'Mulgrew's Minions'
Act III; Growing Pains

In my last post, I wrote about Mulgrew's concerns about the out-and-out anger over the new proposed contract. In this one, I'll focus on the army of union reps that the UFT sent out to convince people that they should vote yes.

I should start by saying there is an entire vote yes apparatus out there. This wasn't the case with the last contract, but it is now. I've been part of campaigns before and I know what one feels like. This is nothing short of a city-wide campaign intent on getting teachers to do one thing: Vote Yes on an contract proposal that is unpopular among members.  It starts with Mulgrew, goes down to the VPs and staffers at the UFT HQ level, then straight to the borough offices and into any school where staff that are part of (or would like to be part of) the Unity caucus. Finally, it ends in every school in the city. It has spread into social media, into teachers' email boxes and has made its way into staff lounges of schools who both strongly support and strongly oppose the proposal. Needless to say; it's a pretty big campaign.

Part of the 'Vote Yes' apparatus is within the Unity caucus itself. Their May newsletter, which was leaked by a Unity member upset about the contract, looked more like a "Vote Yes" flier than a monthly news bulletin for caucus members. While on one level, you might see it as a caucus celebrating an achievement of its goals, it's kind of hard to ignore things like the pay scale and the great big headline urging caucus members to 'Vote YES!'. To urge UFT members to vote yes is one thing. But if you have to urge members of your own caucus to vote for the contract you just negotiated, something's a tad out of place. This flier isn't an example of rallying the troops. It's an example of rallying the faithful troops -the ones who's loyalty you should expect anyway and under almost any circumstance. Think about that for a moment and ask yourself why any army would need to rally it's most loyal soldiers. I come away with the feeling that the cause to which they are being rallied (this proposed contract) must not exactly be selling itself.

Newsletter aside, it was surprising to see the rest of that apparatus take so much time to get its act together. As early as three days after the May 1 press conference, I learned that District Representatives (those people who deal with your chapter leader and are supposed to be an expert on details) were misquoting the amount of the salary increase we are to expect in September (reps from two different boroughs said 10% in September. It's actually 2%).  At first I thought they were liars. I quickly came to realize that they just hadn't been brought up on all of the facts -they didn't know any better!

Apparently, no one had sat them down and made them informed about the details of the contract. No one had told him how important it was to be able to answer questions, or to get out into schools and start selling it to voting members. I am still amazed that union leadership, in the face of such widespread disappointment, did not consider it important enough to tap into their representative corps sooner.

All in all, the representatives didn't get the basics straight and organize visits to schools for a full two weeks after the announcement.  In any campaign, large or small, two weeks is an absolute lifetime. If MORE were just a bit bigger, or if another large group existed who opposed the contract, the Unity leadership would have lost their 'Vote Yes' campaign for that reason alone.

This lack of organization isn't just skin deep. It now seems painfully obvious that the Borough Reps, District Reps and Special Reps of the entire UFT have been simply left out of the loop. I had the opportunity to distribute MORE leaflets during the May 7 DA. Being the smart alack I am, I chose to 'leaflet' the coffee lounge where many members of the leadership gathered before the meeting. Of all the people who I explained details of the contract to, the DRs were the ones who were most open to hear them. Not one detail I shared was contested. At one point, I had four of them surrounding me, listening intently, and one actually pulled me aside to ask a few clarifying questions when I was done (to be clear, they were masked as criticisms, but the questions very clearly sought to clarify the person's understanding).

Weeks later, when my school received a visit from a Special Representative, I was stunned to see him open a copy of the NYC Teacher (the UFT member only newspaper) to search for details to answer member's question about the deal. I've heard similar stories about DRs visiting many schools over the past three weeks. All of them reveal a corps of UFT representatives that have simply not been brought up on all of the facts about the contract proposal and cannot provide many details at all.

These aren't stupid people. Representatives come from highly respected colleges. They are super intelligent, many of them super nice and still many more are super supportive professionals. For the vast majority of elected staff members (chapter leaders and delegates) the District Reps, Special Reps and Borough Reps are their only connection the UFT. In short, they are smart, savvy and have an unbelievably important role in how this union operates. Yet they were kept out of the loop almost completely and, quite frankly, placed in a positions that made them look like car salesman who didn't quite know their car (which, in my opinion, doesn't place them in the light they deserve for all the work they do).

It is a strange twist, that the opposition caucus has come to have a better command of the facts, as well as the details and the possible implications, of the contract than this plethora of union officials. This is consistent across the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens and it is a bizarre circumstance to observe -and a very strange observation to have to share. But it is a fact that has become a part of this 'Vote Yes' campaign.

This  rushed 'vote yes' flier found its way into schools with
a strong 'Vote No' sentiment
Lately, their strategy for connecting with members seems to be focussed on schools that are leaning toward no vote. While they seemed to have 'hit' every school in the city, they seem intent on making sure they visit every MORE stronghold in the city more than once. At one school, when the chapter leader told the DR they were voting no, the DR all but insisted on going -and she brought the Borough Rep along with her (the Borough Rep knew little more than the District Rep)! In at least two others, a Special Rep simply entered, without ever asking the chapter leader's permission, to leaflet mailboxes (something that is considered a 'no-no'). When the chapter leader caught him, he acted as though he were the CL's supervisor and leafletted mailboxes anyway. This flier (featured to the left) was done in such a rushed manner that, had one of my students completed it for class, I would not have issued a passing grade. Yet there it was, in professionals' mailboxes last Friday. (Side note about that last line: If you ask a member of MORE if they have a reasonable plan, they'll say their plan is called 'The Contract NYC Educators Deserve" and will ask you read about it here).

On this level, the intent doesn't seem to be to convince people to vote for the contract. Rather, it seems to be an attempt to make sure that anti-union (or anti-Unity) sentiment doesn't take root in schools. School cultures are tricky and rank and file union members are trickier still. Schools, which we call union chapters, fall into one of three broad categories. There are chapters that are not 'active', chapters that are active and are sympathetic toward union leadership, and chapters that are active and are critical of union leadership. The energies of the representative corps as of late last week seem to be devoted to making sure the latter category of chapters don't grow as a result of this contract.

Vote Yes avatars on Facebook and Twitter to combat
the 'Vote No' badges
School mailboxes aren't the only place where leadership is pushing back against a vote no sentiment. New Twitter users have popped up out of no where urging teachers to vote yes. They come with a great little 'vote yes' avatar yet many have less than ten followers and accounts that are less than one month old. (They also don't seem to know their way around social media all too well). While some of these users are Unity members, many are not. The Unity Caucus has a rather long line of teachers  hoping to be invited in. I have first hand knowledge of least one 'new' Twitter user who falls into this category. He is the chapter leader from a highly regarded high school in Brooklyn. He is not a member of the Unity caucus but would like to be. And there he is in all of his Tweep glory urging his five followers (three of whom are from the MORE Caucus) to vote yes for the contract. This is a good person who believes in the contract and has been urged to get out into social media and push back against the vote no sentiment.

These are Mulgrew's Minions. Party leaders who feel the need to rally their own party faithful. Wonderful, intelligent representatives who seem as though they have simply been left out of the loop and are made to look like flippin' car salesmen/women (which, again, they are not). And a structure that is concerned enough about anti leadership sentiment taking root in their union to push back where they can: with a few new Twitter users and fliers that were quickly put together the night before.  They're not all on the same page, don't all speak to the same bullet points and, clearly, weren't all issued the same walking papers. Just beneath the surface, they look like a rag-tag bunch who have had the whip put to them and aren't quite sure how to present an organized front. If I ran my classroom the way the 'Vote Yes' effort has been organized,  I'd be rated Ineffective.

If these are his minions, it is little no wonder why the man was wound up so tight at the May 5 meeting of the Executive Board.

And about that whip! Tomorrow, I'll get into how the UFT senior staff has supported the 'Vote Yes' campaign. While it involves a presidential town hall meeting (naaa, not Obama!)  and some examples of  black hat (SEO) moves, it also involves an UFT VP who may have actually strengthened the union (if even by accident) as a part of the attempt to get members to vote yes. 


  1. Another gem of analysis. It is so useful to have your perspective as someone who is seeing all of this unfold with fresh eyes but also as someone who has been involved as one of the most knowledgeable people on the contract.

    1. Ah, thanks! Fresh tired eyes. I blinked and the month of May was gone!
      After seeing their strengths and weaknesses this month, I honestly can't believe this is the group that has held on to power for so long.

  2. Great piece. They did, however, synchronize their talking points for those Twitter newbies and blog visitors. Everyone should just read the MOA, they'd say, though neither the Contract Committee nor the Exec. Board did, and it's unlikely most teachers would bother. They'd continue with exhortations to check with your district rep. or whatever Unity person available for further info. It was as if there were no other side. Mulgrew had declared us purveyors of myth and that was it. It was the Eleventh Commandment.

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment! I have to admit, I wasn't aware of the talking points for the new and almost anonymous Twitter users. As they engage in union politics of personal destruction, I have considered who the hecklers are and have concluded that they're actually not much. Let them shout from on high all they want. With 5 new followers, it seems clear to me no one's listening (although I don't like the UFT Twitter account finding them and RT'ing the slogans. That's a 'Black Hat' trick if ever there was one).

      Two more things: 1). They can't have it both ways. They can't pretend opposition doesn't exist, as they go out to find the opposition in social media and attack them. Every single 'active' chapter I've seen, and there are more and more of them every day, is an anti-Unity chapter. Unless they do something to change that, they're going to loose. 2) I remember a time when an 11th commandment might have been do not attack your union brother or sister in public. I must be old fashioned in that I still try to follow it.

    2. I don't attack my union brothers and sisters. I attack those who have signed an oath to support what they're told even if it conflicts with the interests of my union brothers and sisters. But as a result, I've been attacked with the premise I'm attacking the UFT, which is ridiculous. I'm UFT. If leadership denies my members and me representation, I will let them and everyone know it.

    3. Oh I , of course, wasn't thinking of you when I wrote that. I was thinking of MM himself -and of the countless others who have followed his lead and called the own union brother & sisters dishonest.